What do you know about Mexican Wine?
Mexico produces wine? Aside from those of us that live in the country and the information provided in the most detailed sources, most normal wine drinkers won’t associate Mexico with wine production, let alone quality wine production. And to a certain extent, this wouldn’t be a mistake: while Mexico has been producing grapes for religious wine and distilled beverages since the beginnings of the Spanish conquest, the production of quality wine really only goes back about thirty years, and wine culture in the country still has a long way to come, with the average Mexican only drinking the equivalent of several cups per year.
Nonetheless, Mexico is a large and diverse country, and this geographic diversity in particular is reflected in its huge variety of growing regions. While Baja California’s Guadalupe Valley is without a doubt the best-known region both domestically and internationally, the many scattered wine-producing regions on the country’s mainland, almost always characterized by high altitudes but nonetheless varying greatly, give the country a huge diversity of terroirs that makes it hard to generalize Mexican wine into a single style.
Mexican Wine Regions
Currently, a large number of regions of Mexico produce wine, and an even larger area of the country is considered to have the potential to produce wine, all of this despite the fact that the majority of its land is located to the south of the latitudes generally recognized as being appropriate for wine production. Significant wine production currently takes place in the states of Baja California, Chihuahua, Querétaro, Coahuila, Guanajuato, Aguascalientes, Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí. Wine production that is minor or just in its beginnings also takes place in the states of Sonora, Nuevo León and Puebla. In addition, the Consejo Mexicano Vitivinícola recognizes many other regions of the country as being apt for viticulture to a certain extent based on their climactic conditions.
One of the challenges when talking about a country where wine production is not particularly established in the domestic or international eye is how to divide it into regions practically-speaking. While certain regions in Mexico have already been well-defined, other, emerging regions are often categorized by state or municipality, or alternatively by valley or mountain range. This variety of categorization criteria often means that Mexican wine regions are not categorized based on similarities in terroir but rather are more often categorized along political lines. This is even more relevant considering that the country’s states have a significant degree of influence over their agricultural economy, and because of this, wine is often promoted as being from a certain state, whereas some states may have many aspects in common with one another meanwhile different wine regions within the same state may have completely different climactic conditions.
Taking this into account and after much research and travel throughout the country’s vineyards, we would like to suggest categorizing Mexican wine into three overall regions (which contain many sub-regions of course!): Baja California, central-northern Mexico and central Mexico.
Baja California is by far the most important wine producing region in Mexico. As a state, it accounts for more than 70% of the country’s production (the amount varies from 70% to 90% depending on the source), followed by the state of Coahuila in a distant second place at approximately 13% (Consejo Mexicano Vitivinícola, 2015). And while Baja California refers to the state and not a homogenous geographic region, and recognizing that it only has vineyards in its northern portion, it is appropriate to categorize it separately because of the distinct characteristics that separate it from the rest of Mexico, namely its coastal climate and the salinity of its water.
The vineyards in Baja California are generally located at low altitudes about 30 to 50 km off of the Pacific Coast, with a climate that is very hot for wine production. The coastal breeze can help cool things down, but sun is never lacking during the growing season, as rain takes place in the winter. One of the most distinctive features of wine from this region, when producers do not try to hide it in vinification, is its salinity: because of the salt in the water used to irrigate vines, a distinct saltiness is often transmitted in the final product. While it’s common to hear about the “minerality” of many wines, this saltiness is very different. Another feature is that the red wines from this region are often very robust with tannin levels that compare to some of the most robust examples of wines from hot regions in Spain. Water for irrigation is a problem here, and the growth of producers in the area is putting increasing pressure on already strained resources.
There are many sub-regions within Baja California, with the main ones being the Guadalupe Valley, the Santo Tomas Valley, the San Vincente Valley, Ojos Negros, Las Palmas Valley and the Grulla Valley. Some producers refer to their region by municipality or other land divisions, so it’s also common to see Ejido El Porvenir, Francisco Zarco, Ejido Uruapan, San Antonio de las Minas or Tecate when referring to regions, but this has more to do with political divisions than it has to do with growing conditions.
While many grapes are grown in this region, it is particularly known for its Nebbiolo, which interestingly enough, according to The Wine Bible, has been demonstrated via genetic testing to not be the same as Nebbiolo from Piedmont (Fischer, 2015). Other grapes of note that seem to be doing particularly well in the region are Tempranillo and Syrah.
Continental Mexico covers a vast area and it’s hard to generalize but at the same time necessary to do so to not get caught up in the huge number of different small-scale wine producing regions scattered across the country’s vast central plateau, broadly delimited by the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range to the west and the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range to the east. For geographic reasons as well as differences in rainfall, we have chosen to divide continental Mexico into two regions: central-northern Mexico and central Mexico.
While many grapes are planted across the entirety of this vast region, the one grape that seems to be standing out in all states producing wine in continental Mexico is Syrah.
Northern continental Mexico is generally desertic. In many places, daytime temperatures during the summer can be very high, so wine production is made possible by high-altitude regions. Irrigation is also necessary. In this classification, we include the states of Coahuila and Chihuahua (important wine producers), as well as the states of Nuevo León and Sonora (which are just starting to produce wine).
The main difference between northern-central Mexico and central Mexico is the amount of rainfall: these states (on average) receive about half as much rainfall as do the states in our Central Mexico category. This is important for multiple reasons: first of all, irrigation is necessary, as is the case in most wine regions in Mexico, at least for part of the year. Second of all, even though rain takes place in the summertime here, the lower amount of rainfall makes the vines in this region less susceptible to disease or spoilage of the harvest due to excessive water, which are significant problems in the central region.
Nonetheless, this category is still very much of a generalization, and this space encompasses many regions that are even hundreds or thousands of kilometers away from each other (Mexico is a big country!). The most important sub-regions within it are the Encinillas Valley and Delicias in the state of Chihuahua and the Parras Valley, Cuatrociénagas, the Tunal Valley and the Arteaga Valley in Coahuila. There is also a project to start wine production in the region of Cananea, Sonora, and one “artisan” wine producer in the state of Nuevo León in García, not far from the capital of Monterrey. Even so, production in this region is scattered across a vast geographic space, and many other sub-regions exist that are not mentioned here.
In terms of wine production, the region of central Mexico encompasses the states of Guanajuato, Querétaro, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes and San Luis Potosí. This region is also located on Mexico’s central plateau and like the northern central region, is characterized in its entirety by its high altitude, with many vineyards being located at around 1500-2000 meters altitude.
As mentioned above, one of the main reasons for differentiating continental Mexico’s northern and central regions is rainfall. With rain mainly falling during the summertime often around the time of the grape harvest, spoilage due to microorganisms as well as the dilution of grape must are significant problems that make wine production here delicate. One of the ways that producers combat this is by planting varietals that ripen quickly, in the hopes that they will be mature before the worst of the rainfall comes. Another problem is sudden hailstorms, which many producers combat by covering vines with nets.
Within this region are many subregions, including the following (mainly categorized by municipality): Dolores Hidalgo, San Miguel de Allende and San Felipe in Guanajuato; Ezequiel Montés, Tequisquiapan and San Juan del Río in Querétaro; the central valley of Aguascalientes in the eponymous state; the Trancoso and Barranquillas Valleys in Zacatecas and the municipalities of Soledad de Graciano Sánchez and Moctezuma in San Luís Potosí. Of course, just with this list of names it’s easy to get a picture of the amount of different sub-regions in the area, which span five states within a region covering thousands of square kilometers.
Wine Consumption and Culture in Mexico Today
Today, the Mexican wine industry has not yet been able to compete with other New World producers of wine, despite the fact that the country has a long history of wine production, particularly in religious environments. Mexico was the birthplace of viticulture in the Americas, with Cortez planting the first vines during the Spanish conquest, which were subsequently spread by monks along with the growth of Catholicism the country, who were to later preserve this tradition during the period of the prohibition of viticulture started by King Philip II of Spain in 1699.
Even so, various social, historical and economic factors have contributed to the Mexican wine industry remaining in the shadows. One of the important reasons for this disadvantaged position is the fact that Mexico does not have a large domestic consumption of wine. In 2014, Mexico had a per capita wine consumption of approximately 750 mL per person per year (Consejo Méxicano Vitivinícola, 2015) compared to almost 11 L per person per year in the United States (Wine Institute, 2015). In other words, Americans, who are far from being the largest global per capita wine consumers, consumed about 20 times more wine than the residents of their southern neighbor.
When we say that Mexicans drink 750 ml per person per year, what does that mean? Surely it doesn’t mean that each person only drinks one bottle of wine per year. On the contrary, it is indicative of the fact that the large majority of Mexicans do not drink any wine at all, or a very small amount of wine, compared to a very small population segment that actively drinks amounts of wine comparable to other countries.
Culturally speaking, in a normal Mexican household, drinking wine with meals is not typical, even during holidays and special events for many people, as beer is the drink of choice of a much wider demographic. Wine tends to be limited to fine dining restaurant contexts and therefore to people with the financial means to eat at such establishments. In addition, Mexican cuisine is often hard to pair with wine, and especially red wine – which is consumed much more often –, considering its strong flavors which often include spicy peppers as well as garlic and raw onion.
Nonetheless, Mexican consumption statistics as well as import statistics indicate that the country’s consumption is growing, with lower prices leading to access to the market for population segments other than just the upper class. Even so, the domestic wine industry still has a long way to go to be able to compete with cheaper options from Chile and Spain in particular, which are widely available in the country.
Another, less-discussed factor hindering the development of Mexico’s wine industry is the shadow of its neighbor to the north as well as the perception among Americans that all products originating from Mexico are poor quality. For many reasons, Mexico has become synonymous with shoddy-quality consumer products, and unfortunately this misconception seems to have been subconsciously applied to the Mexican wine industry as well. Combined with the generally higher price point (when compared to mass production wines), this may lead to the idea, among the few consumers outside of the country that are aware of the existence of Mexican wine, that it is essentially an overpriced product. However, wine production in Mexico in general is intended as a premium product (although many exceptions apply), aimed at a public with a greater purchasing power.
By Raquel Boucher & Omar Torres
“Comunicado de Prensa Diciembre 2015”. Consejo Mexicano Vitivinícola. Dec 2015. En línea: http://www.uvayvino.org/index.php/prensa
Fischer, Karen. The Wine Bible. Workman, 2015. Print.
“Wine consumption in the US”. The Wine Institute. 2015. Http://www.wineinstitute.org/resources/statistics/article86
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